Book Review: Is America on the Brink of Civil War and Fascism?

Barbara F. Walter's 'How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them' breaks down the perilous path the US finds itself on with factionalism and exclusionary politics on the rise.

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The American political system is close to the brink of civil war and fascism, US style. One of its two main political parties has effectively given up on democracy. The other main party shares the other’s fear of progressive mass mobilisations against racism and police violence and for economic equity. It is equally joined at the hip to corporate donors, and internally divided. Add to this establishment liberals’ historic unreliability in the struggle against the far right and open fascism, the United States, the self-declared beacon of democracy and critic of authoritarianism, is heading towards its own style of fascism. 

At his inaugural address, President Joe Biden spoke of how “much [there is] to do in this winter of peril”. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley called the January 6, 2021 attacks on the Capitol “a coup attempt…treason”, according to Bob Woodward’s Peril. It was, Milley noted with due care, a “Reichstag moment” – the process by which Adolf Hitler and the Nazis consolidated their power in 1933 by instituting mass terror and setting alight the German parliament.

The Republican party recently censured two of its own elected congressional representatives and declared the coup and insurrection of January 6 “legitimate political discourse”.

Civil war looms with factionalisation

Barbara F. Walter
How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them
Viking, 2022

Civil wars don’t generally explode with a single ‘big bang’. For much of the time in their developmental phases they are slow-burning, small things building up a head of steam. Psychological limits of the possible have to be stretched, new normals more widely accepted – such as armed militias policing political rallies by a mainstream political party. First, the power goes off; and then you hear machine guns on the streets. 

And most people tend not to pay too much attention until it’s too late.

Civil wars also do not just happen randomly, or all that often, at least historically. And they are most likely to happen during transitions from autocracy to democracy and vice versa. The transitional moment is the moment of greatest danger.

In the US case today, the threat looms as democracy declines and slides towards authoritarianism because leaders consolidate their own power rather than respect democratic or constitutional norms. There is a key moment – ‘anocracy’ – when an autocratic government becomes incapable of maintaining order as it has acceded to democratic demands and lost state capacity to repress; and a key moment of great danger when a democracy has declined to such an extent that the particular democratic state’s government proves incapable of providing legitimate pathways to change and whose law enforcement institutions fail. The state machine and the body politic has cracked, and a schism has opened up within the political establishment

The political and state system, as Professor Barbara Walter proposes in her book How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them, has by then fallen victim to ‘factionalisation’. This is different from political polarisation among the electorate and people. Factionalisation means political party elites are no longer looking beyond their own narrowly defined core constituencies for electoral or political support. They accentuate the interests of a faction to the exclusion of others. Elements of their constituency mobilise, plot daring violent actions to terrorise opponents and embolden supporters. The others just don’t count as legitimate anymore. They are the enemy within.

That is, in essence, Walter’s argument in a nutshell – over-simplified though as it probably is – in her timely and important best-selling study. Walter is an established and leading student of civil war asking the big questions: “Where civil wars tend to start, who tends to start them, and what tend to be the triggers.” 

America is just another country

For Professor Walter, civil wars are not only a scholarly interest, but also scholarship in the service of policy. She is part of a US government body, the Political Instability Task Force, that has long studied, classified, and advised on civil wars around the world – Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia. That is, the civil wars ‘out there’ – in places where such things tend to happen – Bosnia, Syria, Nigeria. ‘Their’ problems can be studied objectively and scientifically, and plotted on graphs and charts drawing on evidence from huge databases, and policies devised to enable benign American intervention.

Walter found that there were few studies that compared civil wars’ shared components, stages, actors. That is, what did civil wars across systems have in common that might enable understanding of key factors, prediction of future likely developments, and possible moves to head off catastrophic violence including civil war? This impressive, readable and important book is the result. It’s a warning to the American political establishment not to be complacent in the face of a growing threat of civil war.

But is the political establishment listening?

The Republican Party is a far-right force

The problem is that a core source of the slide towards civil war in the US lies in one of the two main political parties – the Republican party led by and in thrall to Donald Trump. Trump and Trumpism rehearsed the events of January 6, 2021 – when far right, fascists and white supremacists sacked the US Capitol building, many of them brandishing weapons as well as Confederate flags – in his calls to ‘liberate Michigan’ etc. His armed militia supporters planned to kidnap and execute Governor Whitmer. They were stopped by the FBI. The GOP – the party of law and order – failed to condemn either President Trump or its increasingly confident fascistic foot-soldiers.

Also read: How Trump Supporters Stormed the US Capitol: A Timeline of Events

Unfortunately, recent developments or decadence in the US has brought home the fact that the fires that burn on the global periphery, often with US and other external interference, have come home. American exceptionalism is no more – it’s just another country like so many of its lesser brethren. “If you were an analyst in a foreign country looking at events in America – the same way you’d look at events in Ukraine or the Ivory Coast or Venezuela… what you would find is that the United States…has entered very dangerous territory.” President Trump and the GOP effectively reduced constraints on executive power to levels comparable to Burundi and Russia.  

But Walter remains reluctant to accept the full force of her own argument: “America is a special country”, she argues, but “not immune to conflict”. Yet, it is instructive that, as member of an American family with citizenship of several European countries, and therefore rights of residence, Walter is keeping her multiple passports handy.

GOP mobilises ‘sons of the soil’

For Walter, US democracy stands on the brink of civil war – not the 1861-65 civil war between the pro-slavery Southern confederacy and Abraham Lincoln’s Union armies, perhaps more like the uprisings and revolts of the 1960s. But this time the civil war would not be by obviously oppressed racial minorities marching against Jim Crow segregation, of anti-imperial war demonstrators, or masses of women struggling for equality. It would be fuelled by declasse rural and small town White Americans – ‘sons of the soil’ – who believe they have lost ‘their’ country to minorities, foreigners, and coastal city elites. More than lost, their country has been ‘stolen’ from them; they are victims.

The ‘left behind’ argument as cause of the shift to the far right is by now commonplace, and mainly laid at the door of working class whites. Little attention is paid to working class whites who backed Biden and opposed Trump in 2016 as well. And it excludes the inequities of a racialised class system that depends on black oppression, police violence, and mass incarceration. It also lets billionaire corporate interests that back the shift to the Right off the hook.

Between the feeling of loss of country, however, the myth of a ‘stolen election’, and the possibility of civil war stand what Walter calls ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’ – those elite political forces and actors who define the situation as requiring radical mass action by the ‘dispossessed’ to ‘take their country back’ and ‘Make America Great Again’. In a word Trump (and Trumpism) signify the most incendiary manifestation of the ethnic entrepreneur to whom all problems are racial problems, to whom the only real Americans are White, besieged on all sides abroad, and by enemies within. How else to explain the sacking of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 in an attempt to prevent Congress from certifying President-elect Biden’s victory in the November 2020 elections, and thereby the peaceful transfer of power?


A boy waits before attending a rally where former US President Donald Trump is to speak, in Conroe, Texas, January 29, 2022. Photo: Reuters/Go Nakamura

President Biden was inaugurated in a Washington, DC, that under military occupation amid FBI checks for far right extremists in the national guard. This was not a peaceful transfer of power.

There is no question that Professor Walter’s book is timely, important, well argued and significant. Its warning should be taken seriously and in that regard she adds her influential voice to numerous others – such as Yale historian Timothy Snyder- who see the US as at the edge of a fascistic abyss. To be fair, Walter also links Trumpism to a deeper history especially of the Republican party and the broad development of a right-wing movement that includes violent terror attacks and extremist militias in the 1990s. Civil wars, and fascist movements, don’t just happen – they are usually prepared over decades and they frequently have patronage of established political parties. The GOP is absolutely complicit in what happened to US politics from the 1990s.

Koch complex shifted political terrain to the Far Right

Walter might with profit have mentioned even deeper forces on the US right – billionaire-led complexes of foundations, think tanks, media, so called grassroots advocacy organisations. Among them, as Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol has shown, the David and Charles Koch complex is the most significant and decisive in reshaping the political terrain upon which political parties compete. So successful has the Koch complex been, Skocpol argues, that the Republican party’s elected representatives are now further to the right than median Republican voters, having ‘primaried’ out of existence any semblance of liberal Republicanism.

Democratic party complicity

But it is also wider than that. What about the Democratic party? The levels of inequality, deindustrialisation, loss of manufacturing jobs via automation and free trade agreements, the consolidation of market fundamentalism and corporate power, the 2008 financial catastrophe – these developments cannot be laid at the door of the GOP alone. 

Similarly, the continuation of the Cold War-era military-industrial complex and its forever wars under Republicans and Democrats alike drained funds from social and infrastructure investment, healthcare provision and funds for schools. The gun complex continues unabated by cross party support. Gun violence remains a key formative experience of millennials.

Also read: Modi, Trump and Democracy in the Age of ‘Alternative Reality’

And both parties have played the identity politics card throughout the post-civil rights period – indeed, the battle lines are almost entirely drawn on identity lines in the strategies of both Republicans and Democrats. This has also created the ‘factionalisation’ which Professor Walter rightly claims is the key step towards possible civil war – that parties emerge which are basically ethnic or identity entrepreneurs, with little attempt at winning over other constituencies. This is the elimination of undermining of cross-cutting cleavages that exhibit a mixture of divisions over some issues and unity over others, maintaining a sense of bipartisanship.

What is to be done?

So what are we left with? How does Walter’s study address the how to stop civil wars part of the book’s title? And here we hit some of the limits of the study: she suggests radical curbs on social media amplification of lies and conspiracy theories by incendiary ethnic entrepreneurs. Walter wants to strengthen government capacity: “The best way to neutralise a budding insurgency is to reform a degraded government: bolster the rule of law, give all citizens equal access to the vote, and improve the quality of government services.” An expansion of state services and support for all to undercut far right extremism. 

The problem is that the Democratic party is itself divided, if not ambivalent, over such policies, and the Republican party is dead set against all of them. Indeed, where the GOP rules across America’s states, it is doing the exact opposite: supporting Trump’s Big Lie regarding the 2020 election; enacting voter suppression laws; running pro-Trump candidates for positions in states that oversee elections and election certification.

Liberalism as an establishment political force is too deeply rooted in corporate interests, mentalities and donors – in short, in the unequal status quo – to provide a high degree of assurance that it has the desire or capacity to follow Walter’s recommendations in any serious way. Hence, placing the power to thwart the power of the far right and GOP’s Trumpism in the hands of establishment liberals of the Democratic party, led by President Joseph Biden, is to ignore history: liberals are almost completely unreliable in the struggle against fascism. Indeed, they are complicit. 

They fear mass upheaval from the Left far more than they fear the pro-private property, wealth and power championed by the authoritarian Right and its violent gangs. 

Just remember how Democratic governors and mayors responded to mass protests in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd: they were the party of law and order and repression. The liberals’ fear and anxiety about mass mobilisations for democratic rights, against racism and fascism should not be under-estimated. Once masses are on the march, who knows where their demands will stop? 

Yet it is mass opposition on the streets and the ballot box that is the most reliable force against fascism – and precisely why the GOP is hell bent on curbing the rights to both means, while Democrats vacillate like rabbits caught in the headlights of an oncoming locomotive.

The fact that Professor Walter’s book has made it to the best-seller list is testament to her expertise, scholarship, clarity, conviction, and the dire position and condition that the United States is in. The book’s warnings of civil war – which is really a threat of US style fascism a la Philp Roth’s The Plot Against America – should be taken seriously on a global scale.

As Maya Angelou poetically avers: “When great trees fall, rocks on distant hills shudder.” 

Should United States’ Republican and Democratic elites continue on their perilous path, and mass opposition be suppressed, those words might well prove a profound understatement.

Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, and visiting professor at LSE IDEAS (the LSE’s foreign policy think tank). He is a columnist at The Wire. His Twitter handle is @USEmpire.